Subjective Tastes and Character Judgments — Two Great Tastes that Taste Lousy Together

basketball high heeled shoe race car

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

“All I hear about these days is the NBA finals. Who are these brainless yahoos who get so obsessed about a ball going into a net?”

“I hate those ditzes who care so much about fashion. They’re so superficial.”

“What is it with selfies, anyway? Who are these self-involved twerps who keep taking pictures of themselves?”

“You know the kind of guy. He likes NASCAR, country music — total fool.”

Why do people do this? Why do we make character judgments about other people, based solely on their personal, subjective tastes in entirely consensual activities?

To be very clear: I’m not talking about subjective tastes that genuinely do have a moral component. I understand that there are moral issues with, for instance, food (eating meat or not?); consumer items (were they made by exploited labor?); choices in transportation (does it pollute?); lots of other examples. I’m also not talking about subjective choices that actually do immediately infringe on other people, like playing loud music at three in the morning and keeping the neighbors awake. And I’m not talking about making our own aesthetic judgments, and mouthing off about them. Of course we’re free to like or dislike any food, art, or entertainment that does or doesn’t strike our fancy — and we’re free to say so.

I’m not talking about any of that. I’m talking about making character judgments about other people, making assumptions about people’s lives and values and relationships, even making moral judgments about them — based on their tastes in music, food, art, entertainment, or other activities that are entirely subjective and consensual. I don’t get it. Why do people do this?

Actually — that’s not true. I do get it. There are lots of reasons we do this. It’s just that none of them are good reasons.

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We often have good or bad associations with certain activities — and we connect those with the people we think of as doing those activities. If you were bullied in high school by jocks, you might have bad associations with sports, and assume that anyone who enjoys them is a mean, mindless jerk.

We can also forget that people have widely varying tastes. If we think romance novels are formulaic and shallow, we might form a mental picture of a romance novel reader based entirely on that — forgetting that they also probably like science fiction, books about history, nature hikes, The Simpsons, homemade chili, ballroom dancing, vintage cars, or any of a hundred million possible activities that make up a rich, full, complicated life.

In addition, we tend to associate certain activities with certain groups of people — and if there are people we already fear, hold in contempt, or otherwise dislike, we often use subjective preferences as a way to denigrate them. Many of the most widely despised personal tastes, the ones that most often get seen as character flaws, are the ones commonly enjoyed by marginalized people. Looking down on people who like rap and hip-hop, or country music, or fashion and style — it’s a way of denigrating black people, poor and working-class people, women. And of course, this becomes a self-perpetuating circle. If we’re already pre-disposed to look down on certain kinds of people (consciously or unconsciously), we’re more likely to dislike the activities we associate with them — and our dislike of their activities becomes a justification for disliking the people.

And some people really do use aesthetic preferences as markers of group identity — and group identities often involve shared values. If we know a particular group of people with a sexist, macho worldview, and they not only like heavy metal but use their heavy metal fandom to signal their group identity to each other and the rest of the world, it’s easy to take them at their word, and assume that heavy metal really does translate to rigid gender roles and macho posturing.

But a big part of this phenomenon, I think, is simply that we like to have our decisions validated by others.

If you know anything about cognitive biases, you probably know about rationalization. Any time we make a decision, we immediately start unconsciously rationalizing why it was right. And part of how we do that is seeking out people who agree with us — and ignoring, dismissing, or pushing aside people who don’t. So when we say that we like white chocolate or basketball or Miles Davis, and someone says, “Ew, I hate that” — it feels dissonant. It conflicts with our image of ourselves as someone who always makes the right decisions. It can even feel like a personal insult — even if no insult was intended, even if no insult was given, even if literally all the person said was, “I don’t like the thing that you like.” Personal tastes are subjective, but they’re also… well, personal. Disagreements with our tastes, especially ones we care about a lot, can feel like disagreements with our very being. And one way to resolve that dissonance is to distance ourselves from people who disagree, and convince ourselves that there’s something wrong with them. Even if all they disagree about is white chocolate or basketball or Miles Davis.

So I get it.

But none of it makes sense.

its so you 35 women write about personal expression through fashion and style book cover
There are plenty of thoughtful, good-natured people who like sports. There are plenty of intelligent people with rich musical knowledge who like country music and hip-hop. There are plenty of easy-going, egalitarian people who like opera. There are plenty of confident feminists who care about fashion. Etc., etc., etc. They’re not rare exceptions. If you want to make judgments about people’s character, it makes no sense to focus on their subjective tastes in consensual activities. Instead, we should pay attention to, you know, how they treat other people.

If jocks were mean to you in high school, that says nothing at all about the sports fan in front of you. If some people use their fondness for heavy metal to signal their identity with a sexist subculture, that says nothing at all about the heavy metal fan in front of you. Of all the crappy excuses people have come up with to denigrate entire classes of people, “I don’t like their music or fashion” has got to be one of the crappiest.

And people can like and love and respect each other, and still have different tastes. Surely we can be confident enough, secure enough, to like the things we like, and let other people like the things they like, and not take it as an insult, a character failing, or a deep clash of our most basic values, when we like different things. If some people don’t like basketball or fashion or selfies or country music or NASCAR, or whatever entirely consensual activities you happen to enjoy, they are not saying a single damn thing about you.

And if they are — if someone’s judging your character because you’re excited about Project Runway or the Final Four — show them this column, and tell them to knock it off.

Subjective Tastes and Character Judgments — Two Great Tastes that Taste Lousy Together
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7 thoughts on “Subjective Tastes and Character Judgments — Two Great Tastes that Taste Lousy Together

  1. 1

    I do think there are some borderline cases, where a default attitude of heightened suspicion might be valid.

    One example that jumps out at me right now is football fandom. If someone identifies as a fan of pro football, then I know that at a bare minimum, that they are willing to support a system that exploits young black men while letting them suffer lifelong injuries in the name of entertainment, and that routinely ignores strong evidence of there being a heavily misogynistic culture among the players. These aren’t small issues, and ‘willful blindness’ is about as good as it gets when talking about someone who sets them aside in order to put money towards the NFL.

    Now, it’s obviously possible to take this too far. I cannot assume that a football fan is actively racist, or that he abuses his domestic partners. But I don’t think it’s unjustified to use football fandom as a red flag that I’m dealing with someone who, at best, sets his own blind spots.

  2. 2

    Freemage @ #1: I see your point. But you can make similar points about almost anything. Example: If someone cares about fashion, and unless they’re going to Herculean lengths to make sure their clothing is all ethically sourced, they’re almost certainly supporting a sweatshop system of exploited labor that borders on slavery (and sometimes crosses the border). The entertainment industry has rampant sexism and exploitation of women’s bodies woven deep into its fabric. It’s impossible to participate in the culture without participating in the abusive aspects of it.

    Of course we should still push back against the abuse. And of course not all abuse is equal, and we can and should have conversations about how much is too much for us to tolerate. I just wouldn’t assume that a football fan is being willfully ignorant about its abuses. They might be genuinely ignorant, or they might have come to an uneasy peace about it, the way I have an uneasy peace with enjoying movies and TV despite the constant gross sexism. I’m not sure where to draw the line, though.

  3. 3

    “And some people really do use aesthetic preferences as markers of group identity — and group identities often involve shared values. ”

    All of us do this, all the time. “Fashion and style” is not just a certain subset of female dress. It is how we all signal group identity. The banker in his correct three-piece suit and Patek Philippe – absolutely not Rolex! – around his wrist is furiously signalling:

    “I know how to dress. I know how to behave. I know the rules. I understand what is done and what is not. You can trust me. I am one of you.”

    The developers at the IT department slouching in Anime tees, open shirts and sandals may claim they care nothing about dress. Many of them probably even believe it. They’d be completely wrong. Try coming there in a suit and tie – or skirt and blouse! – and see how easily you’re accepted, no matter how competent you are as a programmer.

    All of us always use these signals to signal group identity. I suspect we really can’t help but do so; it’s such a natural, immediate extension of the way we use generalization to make sense of a too-complex world.

    We can’t pretend that we don’t do it. Instead we need to recognize that we – collectively and individually – do this, and that it will often lead us astray. When we know we are doing it, we have a chance to recognize when we take it too far and turn it into sterotyping or worse.

  4. 4

    Back in 201o I blogged that I liked the Trisha Yearwood song “Walkaway Joe” and video (which features a young Matthew McConaughey in it fergawdssake!) Oh, the humanity! A few days later I was at Costco when my phone rang and at the other end was a very indignant dude friend of mine with Important Musical Taste berating me about it. I didn’t even know what to say. I recall stammering something apologetic about how my taste in music was admittedly pedestrian.

    I also admit to never feeling as friendly toward him after that. His loss.

  5. 5

    Activities and consumer goods don’t exist in a vacuum. Companies are trying (and perhaps have always been trying) to sell people on a lifestyle. And yes, I can absolutely judge people based on the lifestyles they have or wish they had — to an extent. If, say, a person uses deodorant which is advertised via an extremely sexist and demeaning video, they might have been attracted to the imagery — or maybe they liked the smell or the packaging; not enough evidence, and I don’t care enough to ask. There’s milk at the grocery store made by a company owned by a Christian terrorist cult member, but I’m not going to accuse buyers of being complicit in child murder, because the cartons don’t say “yay child murder” — to them, it’s just overpriced milk for gullible people. But if someone wears branded clothes whose “face” is most famous for running a Neo-nazi gang which seeks out and assaults gay people, they are probably a terrible person. I won’t go out of my way to harm them, but I will avoid them, because I want to keep my job relatively secure and my family safe, and because I only have this much time in my life to spend with other people. And I’m not going to wear such clothes myself, no matter how pretty, because *other* people see the ads and watch the news, and by wearing the clothes, *I*’d be saying “gas the [email protected] and burn the corpses, Hitler did nothing wrong”.
    (I live in Russia. This is by no means an exaggeration.)

    It’s unfair to judge people by the circumstances forced on them (like job “choice”, or poor people clothes, or bad grammar / slang use / accent), but it’s 100% fair to judge them by their choice of fantasies, including entertainment, exactly because those are 100% consensual. If you work for a payday loan company to get through college, I offer my sympathies. If you love cars so much you’re okay with a guy going up on stage to argue for harassing schoolgirls in bathrooms, on your dime, I know where your priorities lie and judge you accordingly. I won’t presume to know your other interests, education level, skills, employment, sexual preference, or family, because I’m not stupid and I know the evidence for those is lacking. But an ethical judgment — that I can make.

  6. 6

    Does it make a difference if I’m considering the level or manner and primacy of engagement?

    Replica props people and cosplayers are into (speaking broadly) “entertainment” to a range of magnitudes that might meaningfully be comparable to the regular audience of TMZ and gossip mags. It might be because the former are literally constructive (somebody made it*) and the latter are largely devoid of redeeming qualities** but there’s something viscerally offensive to me about how bread and circuses/opiate of the masses celebrity gossip/worship culture is.

    My negative judgment of a fandom, or more accurately prejudgement of a given otherwise largely unknown member of one, I don’t care for (and/or think is bad and/or harmful to humanity ala freemage @1) is largely correlated with the depth of the person’s enthusiasm, and can be pushed (sometimes only closer) to neutral if it’s not their main** passion or if some part of the way they engage in the hobby is critical or otherwise redeeming (along the lines of “liking problematic things” or if they’re working under economic duress like I was when I was in payday loans. It was super gross.) It doesn’t get moralizing unless they’re supporting, abetting, or enabling a harmful institution or environment, and even then, I temper it based on their proximity to the harm and, like you said to freemage, how avoidable it is.****

    Since my criteria are hard to directly apply to a group of people I don’t know by definition, I wonder if I escape the precise pitfall you wrote about?

    Thanks for writing this piece, it’s good to be reminded, even if I’m right about mostly avoiding it in public.

    *my real footnotes ended up being longer than the actual post, so they’re on my tumblr. As a courtesy to our host, I’d ask you to not derail this thread with off-topic stuff from my ramblings over there. Tumblr brought replies back recently but there’s still a character limit with no visible counter as far as I know. I’ve never made an original post to tumblr before and I don’t plan to repeat the endeavor with any regularity, so Greta, if you prefer to remove the following link, people should be able to find it by googleing one of the preceding polysentence paragraphs.

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